Think Fairy Tales… And Love at First Sight… And Obstacles Overcome… And Rags to Riches… And Happy Ever After… Patricia Brent, Spinster, by Herbert George Jenkins, is all these, and is one of the most delightful books I’ve read this year. If you liked Winifred Watson’s Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day you will love this – it’s every bit as funny and light-hearted, and features an equally unobtrusive, overlooked heroine who metamorphoses into a stunning, sophisticated beauty with a mind of her own. And, of course, it has a lovely, happy ending.
Once again I owe thanks for a new discovery to Simon at Stuck in a Book, who wrote a lovely review here but, as usual, I’m a little late to the party, because other people posted pieces about this months and months ago.
|This is a 1919 cover I stole from Simon at Stuck in a Book,
so I hope he doesn’t mind. Personally, I think it looks
rather sinister with all those eyes.
Anyway, I digress. Orphaned Patricia, secretary to a rising MP (who is unlikely to rise very far), is an impoverished “paying guest” at the Galvin House Residential Hotel, where the boarders, the landlady, and the building itself are all down on their luck. One day she overhears two of her elderly fellow “guests” pitying her because she doesn’t have ‘a nice young man’ to take her out. Hitherto, whatever she may have thought about the inquisitive residents and their pretentious gentility, Patricia has always remained polite. But she’s 24, lonely, and bored – and at this point something inside snaps.
So she tells everyone she will not be there for dinner the following evening because she is dining at the Quadrant Grill-room with her fiancé! To satisfy the boarders’ curiosity, she invents an Army major named Brown, who is home on leave from France (the book is set in 1918, before the end of the First World War). And she explains that no, she doesn’t have an engagement ring because she hates ‘badges of servitude’!
The next night she dresses with care and sets out to dine – on her own. But, to her horror, on arrival at the posh restaurant she finds three Galvin Houseites have turned up to spy on her. Rendered reckless at the thought of the humiliation she must endure if her lie is exposed, she approaches a young staff-officer sitting on his own, and asks him to help by ‘playing up’, and he happily obliges.
Needless to say, the young man – Lt Col Lord Peter Bowen, DSO (how fortuitous that his name is so similar to the make-believe boyfriend!) – falls in love with Patricia, and she is equally smitten, but won’t admit it. 22She’s determined not to succumb to Lord Peter’s charms: he may offer an escape from her dreary life, but she is much too proud to marry a wealthy man when she is poor.
|Looking at this 1970s cover you’d never know the
book is set in 1918!
As Lord Peter pursues Patricia, and she tries to keep him at a distance, a kind of sparring partnership develops between them, reminiscent of the relationship between Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane. But there are complications because Patricia’s original story means everyone thinks she and Lord Peter are already engaged… And life becomes even more awkward with a visit from sour, interfering Aunt Adelaide (her sole surviving relative)!
As the novel progresses Patricia finds her voice. At the start you think she’s rather quiet and dowdy, but she’s neither. She’s intelligent, articulate, witty, very independent, and quite modern really, so it’s a bit of a shock when she turns to mush as Peter finally kisses her and she realises she loves him. Now I know things were different when this was written, but I refuse to believe any woman ever fainted when kissed.
But that’s a small quibble, because this is such an enjoyable romantic comedy – and there’s a comedy of manners going on as well, because Jenkins is a more astute observer of social distinctions than you might expect. At Galvin House for example, residents are desperately trying to maintain some kind of social position and keep up appearances, for appearances are everything.
At Galvin House manners were things that were worn, like a gardenia or a patent hook-and-eye.
There’s a social hierarchy that must be observed, with rules about precedent and conduct, dress codes, table etiquette and so on. The account of the residents’ preparations when Lord Peter comes to dinner is hilarious. And it’s interesting to see how their attitude towards Patricia changes as soon as they think she is engaged to a lord. But their vulnerability is revealed during a night-time bombing raid.
There are some wonderful characters. I particularly like Mr Triggs, father of the MP’s aspirational wife. Now retired, he’s risen from humble beginnings to make a fortune in the building trade, but remains down to earth, shrewd and kindly, equally at ease in all levels of society. But it’s his clothes that make him memorable, rather than anything he does or says. Take this for example:
Triggs stood before her, florid and happy. He was wearing a new black and white check suit, a white waistcoat, and a red tie, while in his hand he carried a white felt top-hat with a black band… and over his black boots he wore a pair of immaculate white spats.
Isn’t that a splendid image? Actually, Jenkins is brilliant at describing clothes. Here’s Patricia dressing for that first evening with a non-existent fiancé:
With great deliberation Patricia selected a black charmeuse costume that Miss Wangle had already confided to the whole of Calvin House was at least two and a half inches too short; but as Patricia had explained to Mrs Hamilton, if you possess exquisitely fitting patent boots that come high up the leg, it’s a sin for the skirt to be too long. She selected a black velvet hat with a large white water-lily on the upper brim.
“You look bad enough for a vicar’s daughter,’ she said, surveying herself in the mirror as she fastened a bunch of red carnations in her belt. “White at the wrists and on the hat, yes, it looks most improper.”
The final touch to the ensemble is a gold wristlet watch fastened over one of her white gloves.
|I imagine Patricia’s dress looking a little like the pink
one on the left, but in black, with some white trimming,
and red flowers at the waist. From Delineator May 1918
A costume was usually a two-piece outfit, but charmeuse puzzled me. I thought it might be a fashionable style, but it turned out to be very fine, satiny material, which drapes and clings, so perhaps this was one of those rather shapeless, floaty outfits that were so popular at the time, with a kind of longish jacket layered over a skirt that came above the ankle, but well below the knee.
|Or there’s this, also from 1918, which is less floaty,
and a bit more classy perhaps, and the white cuffs
and neckline are rather nice.
And those patent boots must have been highly desirable, because in 1918 questions were raised in Parliament following an Army Council Order the previous year which effectively banned the sale and manufacture of women’s boots, presumably to free up materials and workers for the armed forces.
I should point out that Patricia Brent, Spinster was originally published by in 1918, and re-issues were available as late as the 1970s, but print editions are hard to find. However, it is available as Ebook from Project Gutenberg.
|High, shiny, black boots! These were made in America in 1918,
and I think they look pretty stylish, so perhaps Patricia wore
something similar. Found on collections.lacma.org